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In many of the Sub-Saharan African countries, peasant farmers or small landholders are the core of the agricultural sector of which majority are women. Women have somehow become the de facto managers of rural household agriculture. One main issue small landholders throughout Africa face is the shortage of good quality farming land and for women the situation is even more peculiar; faced with uncertain tenure and decreasing size and quality of plots to farm, they have an exceptionally difficult task maintaining levels of output and household food security. This section examines constraints of women farmers by looking at women’s land rights, the size and quality of their land holdings and their means of acquiring land in Sub-Sahara Africa.
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Land as a factor of production is of immerse importance and is also the most important asset for households that rely on agriculture for livelihood. Access to land is a core requirement for farming and control over land is mechanism linked with wealth, status and power in many areas. However, while women account for 60 percent of all cultivators and produce an estimated 75 percent of the food in Africa, they have been ignored in land reform programs which limit women’s engagement in larger scale cash crop production.
Women’s right to land has historically been conditioned by that of their male relatives within their household or communities. Under customary law in Sub-Sahara African countries like Zambia and kenya, women traditionally had defined rights to land; land was allocated to women from their husbands and natal families based on their position within a kinship group and in particular relationship to a male relative (father, brother, husband).
Traditionally the right to use land was provided to both men and women by the community elders. Depending on the ethnic group these rights would come through the mother’s line in matrilineal societies, the father’s line in patrilineal societies, or both. Also under colonial rule, three buildups worked to the disadvantage of women in their relation to land rights.
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First, private ownership of land by individual registration was introduced. In Kenya for example, private ownership of land was introduced under the Swynnerton Plan. Although established to encourage African farmers to consolidate holdings under individual rather than collective ownership and to introduce more profitable crops and technology, the plan ‘set the precedent for post-colonial land tenure policies that legitimized differential access to land…’. By giving precedence to individual ownership geared toward men, the Plan unintentionally undermined women’s traditional access to land and marginalized their traditional use rights.
The head of household, usually assumed to be male, was awarded title and the right to mortgage or sell the land without the consent of other family members. Registration in effect converted men’s land rights into absolute ownership. Because formal title has legal standing, many women were left with much less secure tenure on the land than traditional rights provided.
Second, the introduction of other legal systems resulted in a complex and often ambiguous legal structure that tended to undermine women’s traditional land rights. Nigeria provides a good example. The Nigerian legal system comprises customary law, English law, and statutory law. Although the Land Use Decree of 1978 is prima facie gender-neutral, the actual rights of rural women in Nigeria are the result of the interaction of these three legal systems. Women are generally disadvantaged in entering land transactions because of the legal uncertainties affecting their tenure and lack of marketable land rights.
Moreover World Bank studies suggest that women’s relatively lower education levels compared to men’s make it difficult for them to understand these legal complexities. Third, the patriarchal nature of the colonial regime worked to the disadvantage of all peasant farmers, especially women and although Post-independence land policies have generally been gender-neutral in the sense of not actively discriminating against women. However, in practice, women’s land rights have barely improved.
Some women now get access to land through purchase or inheritance, especially women who head households. As land becomes increasingly scarce, borrowing and renting are becoming important for women. However, some classical economist like Adam Smith and David Ricardo have called the practice of sharecropping and land rental farming as inefficient. Some African countries have made efforts to ease the acquisition of land by women, especially through inheritance however many parts of Africa traditional inheritance rights which disadvantaged women still prevail. Typically land allocated to women to farm is taken over by the community of her in-laws upon the death of her husband or divorce. Women tend to lose their marital land and they may also lose the rights to use land in their parental home because of the nature of most marriages (women moving to the residence of their husbands).
A woman would, thus, be landless unless absorbed by either the community of her in-laws (a common practice in Burkina Faso) or her natal family. In Zambia for example, the objective of the new Intestate Succession Act is to eliminate unfair practices against surviving female spouses and children and to equalize rights of succession for males and females. However, the act specifically excludes land that, at the time of death of the intestate, has been acquired and held under customary law; this land reverts to the owners, who according to customary law are the community and the family of the deceased. The law allows widows to retain farm implements but does not guarantee that the land the widow has been working on and developing will remain hers according to a 2002 UN- Habitat report.
Good farming land is becoming increasingly scarce in Africa. Population pressure on the land together with continued degradation are taking their toll on available farming land. The World Bank estimates that in all zones about one-third of holdings are below the calculated poverty threshold size. Women have much smaller farms than do men. In Nigeria households headed by males cultivate a mean area of 2.6 hectares, or three times that of female-headed household. Even taking into account the larger size of male-headed households (7.6 people compared to 4.9 in female-headed households), male-headed households had double the land per capita of female-headed households. The gender differences are greatest in Imo State, where male-headed households cultivate five times the area of female-headed households; this is an area of Nigeria where population pressure on land is most intense. Women not only farm smaller holdings than men, but also tend to have fewer plots.
Quality of Land Among with the declining size of holdings being farmed in Africa, their quality also is deteriorating due to a number of factors. One is the well-documented phenomenon of desertification in large parts of Africa, including parts of Burkina Faso and Nigeria. A second factor is the change in farming practices from the traditional land-extensive, low-input cultivation systems that maintain ecological balance to a more labor-intensive system. As population pressure on the land escalate, farming practices changes. For example, the traditional practice of slash and burn or shifting cultivation which enables land to be regenerated, is declining owing to a lack of male labor to perform the tasks of land clearing, and the infeasibility of allowing the land to be left unfarmed for a cropping season because of the loss of output and income.
Furthermore, environmentally beneficent management of the land is closely related to security of tenure and although women increasingly are the farmers, they rarely have land title, hence, their incentives and capacity to manage the land in an ecologically sound way are impaired. In addition, as pressure on existing land intensifies, more marginal lands are being brought under cultivation. Poor land management practices are already evident. Farmers are shortening if not eliminating the fallow period, and the traditional methods of halting soil erosion are inadequate. A World Bank study estimated that every year, cereal, fuelwood and livestock production foregone due to soil, water, and biomass losses costs the country about 5 percent of GDP. Women farmers know a great deal about managing natural resources, but this knowledge is not fully used because women have little security of land tenure and are rarely consulted in the policymaking process.
The poor of the world — five-sixths of humanity — have things, but they lack the process to represent their property and create capital. They have houses but not titles; lands but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation – De Soto
De Soto in his book Mystery of capitalism, use the term “Dead capital” to refer to an asset that cannot be sold, valued or used for an investment. For a majority of women in household agriculture, land seems to be their dead capital. Since the 1960s, some considerable efforts have been made to improve women’s rights to land, but in practical terms, the situation has worsened, the growing population pressure on increasingly depleted land has further weakened women’s land rights, and as good agricultural land has become scarce, women are managing even smaller plots
Women do need land title to obtain formal credit and make investments in the land that will raise both the productivity of land and labor. Furthermore, as efforts to improve agricultural productivity boost up, it will be even more important to ensure that women have access to and control over adequate land. Women’s legal rights to land, throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, must be expanded and secured so that they can be implemented in practice to boost up production.
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